Warm acoustic guitar. A helicopter shot of early morning sunlight falling over a river in rural Louisiana. A bearded and clenched Justin Timberlake staring out the window of the prison bus that’s taking him back to his southern-fried hometown after a 12-year stretch behind bars. You can tell exactly what kind of movie “Palmer” is going to be before the title card even appears onscreen: A nice (but hopefully knowing) drama about decent people finding the strength to persevere through difficult circumstances. The kind of mid-budget, character-driven story that Hollywood studios have relegated to the streamers. The kind of thing that you might fire up on a Friday night as you lie down on the couch with one eye looking at the TV screen and the other at your phone, only to find that both of them are welling up two hours later.
And “Palmer” delivers on that promise. Casual-viewing comfort food that offers just enough flavor to satisfy anyone with a taste for it, this modest AppleTV+ original only defies expectations by sticking to its strengths, trusting in the simple power of its storytelling, and not trying to offer anything more than what’s advertised on the tin. The plot is predictable but well-measured, the characters are familiar but full of life, and the paternal bond that forms between the titular ex-con and a vulnerable seven-year-old-boy — ice-cold at first, but soon to thaw before our eyes — powers a sweetly believable portrait of two outcasts who give a sense of belonging to each other.
Timberlake spends most of the movie scowling at the shadows of an unseen past, but there’s a fun and consistent frisson in watching him play against his fame. Palmer is a former high school football star whose life went sideways after he graduated (Cheryl Guerriero’s script naturally keeps us in the dark about the details for a long while, wringing every drop out of the film’s only mystery until laying it all on the table at just the right moment), and Timberlake’s mega-watt celebrity makes it that much easier to appreciate how Palmer is haunted by his own failed potential. But then again, so are most of the people in his low-income Louisiana town. Director Fisher Stevens doesn’t want to bum you out by dwelling on the details of poverty (after a string of documentaries about fading stars and our ruined planet, he seems happy to embrace the magic of fiction), but it’s clear that Palmer is coming back to a place that isn’t big on second chances. So many of his neighbors never even got their first.
Terse but polite, Palmer moves in with his church-going grandmother Vivian (the indomitable June Squibb) in lieu of anything else to do, or anywhere else to go. His old buddies are — the ones who managed not to get arrested, and then never visited him in jail — seem happy enough that he’s out, but there’s a palpable sense that Palmer reflects everyone’s biggest mistakes right back at them, and most people would rather look the other way. He fares a lot better with strangers. Strangers like Shelly, the meth addict who lives in the trailer on the lawn of Vivian’s house (she’s played by Juno Temple, slipping back into “Killer Joe” mode with another fine performance that burnishes her crown as the transatlantic queen of trashy spitfires). They have the kind of WWE sex that screams “I haven’t touched a woman in 12 years” and also “if we bang hard enough maybe it’ll convince people we’re in a raw adult drama about real American woes, and they won’t feel like they’ve wandered into a Walmart when the story re-centers itself on a cute little kid in the next scene.”
Seven-year-old Sam (Ryder Allen) becomes Palmer’s problem once Shelly disappears on another bender and Vivian fades out of the picture, and everything about his situation telegraphs the movie-of-the-week sentiments to come. But Allen has a strong handle on his character: Smart without going full “I Am Sam,” cute without being all “Jerry Maguire” about it, and stoic without constantly performing his personal history of abandonment, Sam keeps things anchored in his own precocious truth even when the movie around him teeters towards melodrama. That’s a tricky balancing act, and one that “Palmer” commits to within the confines of a sub-genre that typically relies on a safety net of kitsch.
Aside from a family situation that’s likely put him on a first-name basis with the people at Child Protective Services, Sam’s other major hurdle seems to be his casual disinterest in male gender norms. He plays with dolls, he hosts imaginary tea parties, and he dreams of becoming a princess like the ones in his favorite cartoon. But “Palmer” — for all of its hackneyed plotting and Hallmark sentiment — handles this aspect of the story with a soft touch. Sam isn’t hung up on his differences, and the movie around him has the grace to respect that.
Palmer doesn’t approve of Sam’s casual femininity at first, not because he’s a bigot but rather because he knows what it’s like to feel unwanted and it pains him to think that Sam will have to suffer that kind of rejection even more acutely than he already has. Yes, there’s an obligatory scene where Palmer beats up some grown men who should know better (and another one where he scares the shit out a schoolyard bully), but Guerriero’s script is less interested in the fight against hate than it is in the struggle to accept love, and even its most violent encounters are framed by what Palmer is fighting for, rather than what he’s fighting against.
That might sound like a matter of semantics, but it’s enough to inject a sense of discovery into all of the film’s warmest clichés. Palmer’s relationship with a beautiful and bubbly teacher (Alisha Wainwright) at the school where he works as a janitor couldn’t possibly be more trite or convenient, but the movie celebrates its happy connections with an enough sincerity to excuse how easily they click into place. The little things go a long way in something this broad, and while “Palmer” isn’t much of a tear-jerker — more of a cheek-moistener, at best — it’s telling that the film’s most touching moments don’t stem from how Palmer and Sam have changed so much as they do from the permission they’ve given each other to be themselves. “Palmer” isn’t exactly high art, but it’s no small feat for something so predictable to avoid feeling dishonest.
“Palmer” will be available to stream on AppleTV+ starting Friday, January 29.
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